LaZebnik Captures Baseball’s Unlikely Friendship With Buzzie & The Bull
Talking Sports with Don Laible
Long before Steinbrenner and Martin, there was Buzzie and the Bull.
Forget about analytics. Think baseball when scouting meant boots on the ground; veteran front office personnel and retired players combing inner city streets and country farms for the next Mantle or Mays. Free agency is still more than a decade away. Player salaries, for some, is under $10,000.
Baseball was still in Brooklyn, and a tough kid from New York City's most populated borough wanted to play in the big leagues. Add a club's general manager with ties to the City, who shared a heart of gold and managed a club's purse as tight as if lined with Gorilla Super Glue, and you have all the making's of a fascinating relationship.
Author Ken LaZebnik, also with Brooklyn roots, has captured one of the best accounts involving player and management in baseball's rich history that most didn't know existed, but will be glad they now have an opportunity to learn about.
Buzzie & The Bull - A GM, a Clubhouse Favorite, and the Dodgers' 1965 Championship Season (University of Nebraska Press) is 166 pages of baseball bliss. The relationship introduced between long-time executive "Buzzie" Bavasi and eight-year MLB outfielder Al "The Bull" Ferrara is a fine mix of oil and vinegar, with a touch of honey.
"After Buzzie's death (2008), his family was going through his personal items. It was his son Bob who initially said there was a book in his father's friendship with his favorite Dodger - "The Bull", LaZebnik said during a recent telephone conversation.
"Bob Bavasi thought "The Bull" was the coolest guy in the world. So, for a year, every Monday I met with him at his Studio City (CA) apartment with my notebook and interviewed "The Bull."
The Los Angeles Dodgers, the World Series winners in 1965 were built by Bavasi, and for 19 games that season "The Bull" added drama and intrigue to the club. Most of the drama and intrigue was created off the field.
LaZebnik is wonderfully pithy in explaining Bavasi and "The Bull's" personalities.
"Al is a great guy, and he acknowledges that he messed up, and owned up to it. He lived on the edge, then moved on."
If you're a sucker for old baseball stories, Buzzie & The Bull is calling you.
"The Bull's" late night escapades during spring training in Dodgertown (Vero Beach,FL) with teammate and running pal Johnny Podres is priceless. Sneaking out to race tracks (dogs and horses), late night to early morning parties with a bevy of beauties, and a bounty of bookies, "The Bull" never had difficulty finding a party in "Tinseltown".
How "The Bull" gets to be a Dodger, how he is able to remain within the organization, and how he and his conservative boss learned to co-exist is captured in detail by LaZebnik.
The cooperation by the Bavasi family to Buzzie & The Bull shouldn't be understated. Details on how Buzzie came to work for Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley, how his college roommate Ford Frick' s recommendation kick-started his career in the game, and his deeply personal letters to his wife while serving during World War II are amazingly captivating.
LaZebnik's love for baseball is heavily peppered through the book. He makes sure everything about the Dodgers' championship season captures how "The Bull's" teammates Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Maury Wills, and Tommy Davis are succeeding on the diamond.
The fines, being exiled to the minors for his actions reflecting negatively to the organization ,loans, all the gambling shenanigans you could stand flood the pages of Buzzie & The Bull.
For LaZebnik, personally and professionally, Buzzie & The Bull was a project destined for him to capture. Growing up a Cardinals fan in Columbia, Missouri, LaZebnik has spent the past 30 years in Los Angeles (although now commuting to Brooklyn) working as a writer in television, film, and theater.
Among his credits are writing and producing the TV series Touched by an Angel.
As for "The Bull's" sharing his life story, which includes some rather personal embarrassing stops, he has no regrets.
"I loved my childhood in New York City," boasts "The Bull". "I think a lot about it. I love everything about being in Brooklyn. Some of my earliest memories of my grandmother taking me for bus rides are my happiest. But, I cried when I read this in the book."
"The Bull" has a happy ending. As he said last week during a phone chat, after baseball, working as a maitre d' in Los Angeles, his past bad decisions with alcohol slowly slipped away.
"I'm the same guy today as I was back then, but sober," "The Bull" tells. "I went from bartending in Kentucky, to six months later being in the company of Ringo Starr, The Monkees, and Linda Ronstadt."
In Buzzie & The Bull you are taken back to a time when baseball had no amateur draft. 16 teams had armies of scouts and "bird dogs"; part-time scouts who offered tips to the big league clubs. "The Bull" came out of Brooklyn at the same time names as Pepitone, Torre, Koufax, and Aspromonte were making the news on New York City high school fields.
Listening to games on radio were the preferred method by most baseball fans, to let their imaginations run wild while creating the images on grass fields.
Today, "The Bull" works for the Dodgers in a community relations position. Reading Dr. Seuss books to elementary students, talking to kids about the dangers of alcohol, drugs, and tobacco, as well as greeting fans at Dodger Stadium keep the 81 year-old former outfielder enthused.
The Mayfair Hotel on Los Angeles' West 7th Street was "The Bull's" hub of nightlife, and on most days during the MLB season over at Chavez Ravine, Dodger Stadium is where flashes of baseball brilliance were displayed for parts of six seasons.
Getting in and out of jams was Al Ferrara's specialty. The details of how he arrived to that level, and his subsequent escaping from his own demons, this is where LaZebnik's brilliance stands at attention.
Going back to baseball's future with Buzzie & The Bull couldn't be more timely, or entertaining.
Don Laible is a freelance sportswriter living in the Mohawk Valley. He has reported on professional baseball and hockey for print, radio, and on the web since the 1980's. His columns are featured weekly at WIBX950.com.